Some are calling it the biggest sporting event in the commonwealth’s history.
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This has the feel of a Kentucky Derby week, with the national media lens on Louisville and Lexington, focused not on thoroughbreds, but on what makes this basketball rivalry so intense.
Rick Pitino is in the unique position of having coached both teams. First, eight years at Kentucky and now eleven seasons in Louisville. This week he explained the fan demographics to an out of town questioner.
“We’re sort of limited to our city. They have as many fans in our city. It ends up with a lot of bad marriages. A lot of mixed marriages that end up bad. You have a Louisville woman with a Kentucky man and it always ends bad,” he joked.
Both programs have well-established traditions, but Louisville is relatively new as a national power, coming to prominence with two titles during the Denny Crum era. Fans say U of L deserves more respect than it often gets from the UK faithful.
Kentucky won the first of its seven titles in 1948 and Wildcat basketball has become a religion in some regions of the Commonweath. UK fans have high expectations, including a victory over Louisville.
“Is everyone passionate about college basketball in this area? No question. But it seems that the ones that get through on the internet and/or on our shows are the crazy ones,” said Tony Vanetti, co-host of the Afternoon Underdogs program on WKRD radio in Louisville.
He and partner Dave Jennings have been fielding lots of calls from fans on both sides this week, but they’ve generally been respectful and often humorous, like this anecdote from a caller named Joe.
“My daughter came in my house wearing a blue shirt with Kentucky on it and I looked at her and asked her, ‘What’s that you’ve got on? ‘ She told me, ‘That’s a Kentucky shirt.’ I said, ‘You can turn around and go on back out the door.’ And she pulled the shirt up, and said ‘I’ve got on a red shirt, a Louisville shirt.’ She was just joking with me.”
The UK/UL Final Four matchup has spurred more talk about the rivalry between coaches Calipari and Pitino, who exchanged barbs in the media early in the season. But both told ESPN Radio this week that it’s all overblown and there’s no personal animosity.
Calipari: “I’ve known him for a long time, he’s known me for a long time. I really respect him and what he does. And everybody’s made more of it than it is.”
Pitino: “There really is nothing to it to be honest with you. We’ve never had negative words with each other, we’ve never had a problem. So the media just likes to harp on it.”
They play every year now, but this is the first NCAA tournament showdown between Kentucky and Louisville in nearly 30 years. U of L beat UK in the Mideast Region final in 1983. The following year, the Wildcats beat the Cardinals in a Sweet Sixteen game.
Louisville was the favorite in ‘83 and won by 12 points in overtime. This time the Cards are the underdogs, but Crum says that’s not necessarily a bad place to be.
“It’s hard to say that even though one team is the favorite that it’s a lock going in. Sometimes that’s the kiss of death for you,” he said.
Hall believes the Wildcats are on their way to a national title, but both programs will benefit from their time in the national spotlight.
“There’s not enough you can say about what this game means, not only to the fans, to the coaches but to the future of the programs, to the recruiting. It’s just a very, very big game,” he said.
The Cards and Cats will tip off shortly after 6:00pm Eastern time Saturday in New Orleans.